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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Brains Rewired? Part Two

(If you must have politics, please scroll down)

As I mentioned in "Brains Rewired? Part One," perhaps something more insidious than depleting our memories is going on as we become more dependent upon and more involved with the technology of the Information Age.

From this book review of Todd Oppenheimer's The Flickering Mind, published in 2003:
[Todd Oppenheimer found that] computer-only research leads students to become dependent on authority for knowledge. Using the Internet as an information source they do not develop the same sort of critical evaluation of sources essential for historical research. Worse, Internet research makes plagiarism easy and appealing: one can simply copy an web page, run it through a computerized thesaurus, and hand it in as original work.

The most compelling part of Oppenheimer's argument is his disapproval of the trendy nature of high technology in schools. He notes that Thomas Edison had predicted that the motion picture would obsolete textbooks and lead to education that was 100% efficient.

The motion picture trend was then replaced (respectively) by radio, then television, then videodisk, then computer, then Internet. Each of these trends cost the education system large amounts of money, attracted enthusiasm for a limited time, and ultimately failed to save schools....
Clearly, then, technology is rewiring our brains and impairing our ability to think critically while, at the same time, more and more curricula are demanding extensive use of the Internet. From the Center for Brain Health:
...We are exposed to three times more information today as compared to four decades ago. The information overload leads to more multitasking and forces us to push our brain to do things it was not built to do. In essence, the normal function of our brain is impaired, especially the frontal lobe.

The frontal lobe of the brain is key to dynamic thinking and is the last part of the brain to develop and the first to decline. Frontal lobe function is responsible for strategic attention, critical thinking, judgment, decision making and problem solving. The lure of technology is rewiring our brains in detrimental ways leading to weakened focus, shallower thinking, reduced creativity and forward thinking and a lowered ability to shut out irrelevant information – all decreasing our brain’s potential....
The PBS video Digital Nation below is long, but worth your while as we consider whether we're the masters of technology or if, in reality, technology is the master of us and thereby changing our brains and social interactions in ways not yet fully understood:

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

If you don't have time to watch the entire video, please watch at least the first seventeen minutes.


  1. Interesting. I've had sneaking suspicions, but have never seen it summed up quite so succinctly.

    You would think that sourcing information via the internet would teach you how to critically evaluate a source better that sifting books and magazine articles would, since there is much more garbage information available on the internet.

    Anyway, this is disturbing.

  2. This makes me think of children and their toys; remember when we had a doll that did NOT speak for itself or wet for itself or move for itself? I know I'm not alone in thinking that took a lot from a child's creativity...it's giving to kids WHAT they should say/think (via the doll for example) instead of letting the children think and play and create situations in their playing...don't you think that's rather in line with the post's information?
    In college today, you'd better not differ from the prof...we're not teaching to THINK anymore...just hear and accept. Whatever the DOLL SAYS GOES :-)
    Kids can't TELL TIME, they READ TIME now.

  3. An interesting thesis your pursuing here, AOW. Allow me to throw in my two cents worth.

    I see technolgy as a tool. I can be used for good or it can be abused. The Internet, for me, has provided the opertunity to learn so many things,i.e.,keeping my mind active, that I would not have pursued otherwise. However, technology is no substitute for teaching and learning. It is a great suplement to teaching and learning. For example, a student should not be allowed to use a calculator until after the have a solid grasp of the underlying math.

  4. Well darn! in my state they plan to provide a labtop to each student, raise class sizes
    and fire 770 teachers!
    So much for learning and
    especially..critical thinking.

  5. Most students today do not even understand the fundamentals of critical thinking let alone know how to use critical thinking, when it matters. The lack of common sense is staggering.

  6. I don't know. Seems to me that the plethora of information available on the internet forces us to think critically. You can find arguments for every side imaginable and some that aren't. Unless you confine yourself to researching only those points of view with which you agree, you will find a myriad of differing opinions on everything under the sun. You must, upon considering all points of view, come to your own conclusions, and, that is thinking critically.

    Otherwise, you're a Liberal.

  7. 'with great power comes great responsobility'
    over-used but appropriate line. I have to argue with tech ruining critical thinking/memory, etc.

    Yes, many teens spend half their days online, just like they may do so hanging out at the mall, a cafe, skating park, etc. etc. The tech isn;'t the problem, the lack of ANY resonsibility is the problem. install a sense of disapline, and problem solved (and I do know teens who spend less than an day/week online. its not impossible)

    yes, being able to run to a computer and find ANYTHING can be trouble, as it is too easy. finding something good on the other hand, that takes time and effort, as much as going to the library. same with plagerism, only quicker/easier.

    the lack of memorizing is the worst, but when it come to contact info, how many people just write it down (on paper) and forget it?
    as for the schools... no defense. they need to make kids memorize some things and learn basic (like math without a calculater)

    it seems to me that what really is needed is the ability to adapt to what tech we have, to learn to use it well, and responsably. the tech isn't going away, and ignoring the problem won't help.

    p.s. I'm a bg tech person, and sometimes over-due the computer usage. But I do know when to put teh computer away and acually read a book, go outside, imagine something, engage in life! more people seem to need to learn that...

    pps sorry for super long post

  8. Using technology has become the latest panacea in education. In the process, what is all this technology use doing to the brain itself? That's the question I have overall.

    We hear a lot today about Internet addiction. Is that addiction actually a neurological phenomenon? Maybe, maybe not.

    But something specific occurred that got me to thinking, "What's happening to my brain?"

    When I used to spend a lot more time on the computer (2005-2007), at night I actually dreamed that I was blogging, and those dreams because nightly. At that point, I stepped back and cut down my online time.

    Technology can be a wonderful tool. The key word is "tool." When the tool owns you, the tool becomes something entirely different.

    Scientists today know a lot about the brain. However, much about the brain also remains a mystery.

  9. Wildstar,
    With all the emphasis on technology in the classroom and with parents in absentia so much of the time, the discipline you mentioned may not occur.

    When you're in class, you're not on the Internet, right?

    But what if you were in class and on the Internet much of that time and then went home and hopped onto the Internet for three more hours?

    BTW, be sure to watch the video I embedded in "Brains Rewired? Part Two" a few posts down. Very informative!

  10. This is fascinating, but not surprising. Watching young people texting and such while completely failing to interact with each other makes me wonder if they have any cognitive ability.

  11. I see technolgy as a tool. It can be used for good or it can be abused...true but I dont think there is such a thing as critical thinking anymore!

  12. We are exposed to three times more information today as compared to four decades ago.


    Not exactly. We are probably exposed to at least four times the data of decades ago but data and information aren't equivalent. Information has been processed and filtered. We don't perform that selection a lot of the data that hits us every day.

    The Internet compounds this.

  13. We select and filter the information we want. I think the addiction has to do with the speed. We don't have to spend as much time in research, its all there at a click of the mouse. Plus, there's both the illusion of community, on a global scale, combined with the security of anonymity.

    But we've definitely gone way past the doll stage. That was back in the days when the dolls PBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC pissed all over us and told us it was raining. Now we have a variety of sources to choose from and its just up to us to figure out what's valid and what's crap.

  14. The left is in love with TV because in TV land if you just believe it can appear to be real.

    We are exposed to three times more information. Agreed but what kind of information?

    Our contemporaries from the past were smarter even though they had less information because they did not fill their minds with the stories of the lives of celebrities, the did not fill their minds with information regarding the newest fashion in clothing and technology, they did not fill their minds with the latest tripe that passes for political thought.

    There is a line in the Matrix where one of the council tells Neo he has no idea how the machines run. He says that he only understands that they produce oxygen.

    Watch one of those random surveys on the street. People can not even identify the names of their elected leaders. They can not describe a single basic principle of economics. They have not read nor can they provide any description of the Constitution. They could not even find Libya on a map. And you wonder why I have such a negative view of government schools......I wonder why.....

  15. Plato, "Phaedrus"

    SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

    PHAEDRUS: Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.

    SOCRATES: There was a tradition in the temple of Dodona that oaks first gave prophetic utterances. The men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from 'oak or rock,' it was enough for them; whereas you seem to consider not whether a thing is or is not true, but who the speaker is and from what country the tale comes.

    PHAEDRUS: I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.

    SOCRATES: He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?

    PHAEDRUS: That is most true.

  16. Good article. I disagree at least in part with this particular tenet, tho: "Using the Internet as an information source they do not develop the same sort of critical evaluation of sources essential for historical research."

    "The same sort" I assume as being otherwise derived from printed matter, field work, etc., resulting in logical conclusions (critical evaluation of sources) drawn from the information provided.

    For my own experience as a blogger, my ability to evaluate news events in order to predict trends has improved greatly over the years I've been doing it, with my information coming almost entirely from the Internet. Some from cable news, but that streams over the Internet anyway so I see no difference in that.

    So my disagreement is with that statement being a cut-and-dried given. I think it depends on both the person and the application of the knowledge gained.

    I have been concerned for some time over the fragility of this burgeoning mountain of human knowledge. Papyrus scrolls lasted for 1000's of years. CD and DVD discs may only last for a few. Even magnetic tape can still be good over 50 years later, as I've found, but modern electronic storage is becoming like dust on a plate. Add to that the fact that the Internet loses webpages now as fast as it gains them. Information is being constantly dumped and never reinstated.

    Granted most of that information is useless social drivel, but a lot of history is being deleted too, often when that was the only record of it to begin with.

    So it's not the Internet rewiring our brains for pointlessness, it's our brains rewiring themselves to blend with the Internet.

    There's a spooky thought, huh? Ho ho.

  17. Black Sheep,
    You said:

    So it's not the Internet rewiring our brains for pointlessness, it's our brains rewiring themselves to blend with the Internet.

    Along those lines, you might be interested in reading THIS.

  18. Black Sheep,
    Addendum: Good point about the temporal nature of today's electronic storage!

  19. Speedy,
    Sorry for the delay in publishing your comment!

    Somehow, your comment ended up in Blogger's spam folder.

    Oh, well. You know how temperamental Blogger can be.

  20. Ducky loves to parse words, for no other reason than to demonstrate what a superior intellect he is. We have often wondered if he even bothers to read our post or watch the videos. I suspect he does not. In context with the material shown, we should argue that data is the basis for our several conclusions, and information is the processed outcome of data. Why this is even relevant is beyond my understanding. The point of AOW’s post is that this study is an important revelation, even if not entirely surprising.

    Even though I must support the contention about “critical evaluation,” Black Sheep has left us with an excellent comment. The internet provides tens of millions times the resources that one might find in a local library —particularly one located in Hicksville, Kansas. The problem experienced by most teachers and those of us who blog is this: Whom do you believe? How does one give critical evaluation to internet resources that do not tell us the name or bona fides of the person providing the information?

    In many cases, we can only tell where we found the information, not the name of the person providing it. We therefore run the risk of valid criticism, and so the lesson (for students and bloggers) is to find as many corroborating sources as possible.

    There is a major difference between regurgitating information found on the internet, and having a true understanding of issues under discussion. Students are very likely to capture an internet resource and regard that as plenty sufficient to “make their case” in a classroom assignment. The second leading cause of dumbing down America is cliff notes, which young people prefer the actual book. And of course, they get away with it in most cases …

    The issue of multitasking is very relevant. In spite of the number of traffic accidents caused by persons who are texting while driving, people appear incapable of admitting that they are unable to do both with equal efficiency. This is particularly true among young people, whose brains are not yet fully developed. A good friend of mine is a pilot, and he tells me “texting” is going on in the cockpits of airliners all the time. How scary is that?

    Still, the study does explain how we ended up with Barack Obama as president.

  21. "We are exposed to three times more information today as compared to four decades ago."

    That's true, it is also far easier to get information these days, but strangely enough we are far more ignorant than folks 50 to a 100 years ago.

  22. Mustang,
    Texting is going on in the cockpits of airliners? Ye, gods!

    Still, the study does explain how we ended up with Barack Obama as president.

    I don't doubt it.

    BTW, I get a copy of Cliffs Notes for every book my students read. Why? To make sure that students aren't regurgitating material from that source and to make sure that our discussions go well beyond what's found in those notes. Cliffs Notes and other material, including electronic material, should be jumping-off point and a jumping-off point only.

    I daresay that our discussions in class are interesting and "high level." Then again, most of my homeschool students aren't wired into today's technology to the extent that many other students are. Even so, various social sites are a factor that contributes to student distraction.

    If we teachers allow mere regurgitation from the Internet or other materials, then we are not teaching.

  23. Mustang does make a good point, and it is one factor that draws me to use the Internet:

    The internet provides tens of millions times the resources that one might find in a local library...

    In my view, the Internet is both enemy and friend.

  24. I agree with Mustang's comments as well. Sourcing your information is critical. Knowing how to logically analyze something is also very important, and I don't think that is being taught very well today.

    Why do we have so many people willingly sucking up whatever "their side" tells them?

    The internet, like anything, is a double edged sword. Lots of crap, but also a wealth of information. I think kids don't appreciate it because they can't remember the old days when you had to trudge to the library, go through card files, find books, and then read the books to find information or a relevant quote.

    I love Google books and other online resources.

    Today, a diligent person can literally sit at home and receive an education all through the internet.

    But, as you say, it has removed the premium on memorization, and even to some extent learning.


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